Discovering the Unexpected through Study Abroad


While studying abroad at Tel Aviv University in Tel Aviv, Israel, in spring of 2022, Sasha Gerber ’23 was hoping to improve her Hebrew and learn a little about the culture. What she didn’t expect was to find a deep connection with a community so far away from her home.

“You would sit in a café and people just start having a conversation with you,” Gerber said. “They’re just interested [and] curious about your life. They ask, ‘how are you?’ and they actually mean it. They are always very welcoming.”

At Wesleyan, Gerber is a classical studies and College of Letters major with a proclivity for language—fluent in four and speaking seven in total. As a Jewish student who spent much of her youth in a small, private Orthodox Christian school in Moscow learning Latin, Gerber saw studying abroad as a chance to become fluent in Hebrew. “I thought it was a good opportunity for me to go and study in the country that speaks that language,” Gerber said. “And I had visited Tel Aviv a few times before, and it seemed like a very culturally rich city to live in.”

She is also interested in Middle Eastern politics and plans to pursue work in Germany’s nonprofit sector—her family moved to Frankfurt permanently from Moscow after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which commenced just a week after she began studying abroad. Gerber said she was feeling lonely and isolated at points during the war, but she found solace in her conversations with locals who were used to living with the anxieties of war. “They didn’t care whether I was Russian or not, and that was great,” Gerber said.

Along with speaking with Israeli citizens in cafés and learning Hebrew in an intensive Hebrew class as a part of her study-abroad coursework, Gerber also got the opportunity to help a local with her English in a class titled “The Ultra-Orthodox in Israeli Society: Differentiation vs. Integration.” Part of the class was a two-hour weekly session with an ultra-Orthodox partner to learn about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and help them practice English in exchange. Gerber’s partner, Hadassah from Jerusalem, left an ultra-Orthodox community about five years ago because she felt like she didn’t get equal treatment as a woman.

“The idea was that we teach them English or we help them to improve their conversational English, because they were never exposed to that,” Gerber said. “And then they tell us about their experience being a very religious person, or having left the community and why they did so.” (Hadassah said, “It’s the first time I’ve felt the confidence to speak English aloud.”)

Photo courtesy Sasha Gerber

Outside of what she learned in class, Gerber said she learned to be more independent away from the small campus atmosphere at Wesleyan, and to advocate for herself more in a busier environment. In Israel, she said she needed to yell out to the driver when she needed the bus to stop along her 40-minute commute to school in the morning. She needed to go meet with people in person, rather than just forwarding over email after email, if she wanted something done. It was up to her to find her own way.

And yet, while their manner could be direct, Israeli citizens were willing to do whatever necessary to help her—just one facet of a semester Gerber won’t soon forget. “I miss living near the sea and taking long morning walks along the shore. I miss hearing Hebrew around me and using it in my daily life,” she said. “And I miss the food and cafés of Tel Aviv.”


A rock climbing and workout enthusiast, Ilana Alvarado ’24 is used to challenging environments. Her home city of Bogotá, Colombia, is among the most elevated cities in the world, sitting over 8,600 feet above sea level. Her record climb was over 16,000 feet above sea level on El Toti del Cocuy, a mountain in a section of the Andes Mountains in Colombia. 

For the Spring 2022 semester, however, Alvarado decided to try a different kind of challenge.  

An exchange student from the Universidad de los Andes, in Bogotá, Alvarado elected to study abroad to work on her English—her third language after Spanish and French—and picked Wesleyan as her destination partly because of its proximity to New York and Boston. “It’s been a very good experience. I have learned a lot. I met amazing people too, but it has also been challenging because it’s a huge change for me, in every possible way,” Alvarado said. “I’m living by myself, I’m living on campus, I’m speaking another language all the time.” 

Photo by Ilana Alvarado (far left)

Like many of her classmates, Alvarado lives with her family while she goes to school in Bogotá, home to over seven million people, more than 150 times the population of Middletown. Her time at Wesleyan, which spans January through August 2023, is her first opportunity to be truly independent. She was apprehensive about speaking English when she first got here—she had not spoken it since high school—but after six weeks in her new environment, her confidence in her English has skyrocketed. 

She tried ice skating for the first time, falling just once, she said. She joined the Latin Dance club too, a favorite of hers. The first time she took a seminar class was at Wesleyan this semester; her classes in Colombia are all large lectures, she said. “It’s been interesting to expand my learning process, not only teacher-to-student, but also learning from my peers,” Alvarado said. 

“You also learn a lot about yourself too, like how you respond to circumstances or what triggers [you], what doesn’t and why,” Alvarado said. “It’s been a good opportunity also to know myself and to learn how to be alone in a way that I can enjoy it and take advantage of this amazing opportunity of being in another country.” 

To learn more about student and alumni experiences abroad, read Alumni Abroad: The Peace Corps and In Exchange: A STEM Excursion to India.

By Mike Mavredakis